Venezuela Has a Law in the Works to Wipe Out Civil Society   

The National Assembly of Venezuela, overwhelmingly pro-government since most of the opposition did not participate in its election, approved in first reading a law according to which NGOs will need authorization from the executive branch in order to function. Photo: National Assembly

By Humberto Marquez (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Venezuela’s parliament, in the hands of the ruling Socialist party, is advancing in the approval of a law to control non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so that, effectively, they would not be able to exist independently.

The new law “not only puts at risk the work of accompanying victims of human rights violations, but also all the humanitarian and social assistance work done by independent organizations,” Rafael Uzcategui, coordinator of human rights NGO Provea, one of the oldest and more renowned in the country, warned IPS.

As categorical was lawyer Ali Daniels, director of the NGO Acceso a la Justicia, who told IPS that the law “is contradictory and, by design, is made for non-compliance, because it is impossible to fulfill 20 requirements and 12 sub-requirements imposed on civil organizations.

The bill, entitled “Law on Control, Regularization, Operations and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations,” was approved without dissent in its first reading (in general, afterwards it will be discussed article by article) on January 24 by the single-chambered legislative National Assembly.

In this parliament of 277 deputies—a number that exceeds the 165 initially foreseen by the 1999 Constitution, the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) and his allies control 256 seats, and the remaining seats are held by groups that refused the call of the majority opposition to boycott the legislative elections of 2020.

The law’s justification states that it is inspired by a similar 2013 law in Bolivia and highlights that NGOs “depend almost exclusively on ‘assistance’ from western governments, which is generally directed towards countries of geopolitical importance and related to a framework of intervention.”

Diosdado Cabello, “number two” in the PSUV of President Nicolas Maduro and chief parliamentarian of the party, stated that opposition groups “through NGOs plot against the country. They are not non-governmental organizations. They do not depend on the Venezuelan State, but on the gringo (US). They are instruments of imperialism.” With the new law “having it easy is over,” he said.

The hegemony of the PSUV extends, together with the Executive and Legislative branches, to the Judiciary, the electoral college and the Republic’s Moral Council, made up of the Prosecutor’s Office, Comptroller and Ombudsman’s Office, plus the solid support of the Armed Forces.

The main opposition parties have been intervened by the Judiciary, several of their leaders are exiled or electorally disqualified, and the press, radio and television with information different from the official one have practically been driven to extinction.

In addition, there are 270 political prisoners in the country (150 military and 120 civilians), according to the daily record kept by Foro Penal, a human rights NGO.

NGO programs to assist vulnerable groups with food and medicine in Venezuela, a country in a deep socioeconomic crisis, would be affected if demands are imposed or the operation of these groups is suppressed, warns a statement from more than 400 organizations. Photo: Feed Solidarity

In this scenario standing out as critical and independent voices are different NGOs and the bishops of the Catholic Church.

Almost a month after the bill was approved in first reading, it has not been officially presented and the text that was informally circulated from the parliament is still in circulation, triggering the alarms of civil organizations.

More than 400 organizations, including several international ones, such as Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, Transparency International, Poder Ciudadano of Argentina, Chile Transparente and Centro de Derechos y Desarrollo of Peru, have already produced a document expressing their alarm and rejection of this law.

Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also visited Caracas two days after the law was approved. He remarked that in his dialogue with the authorities “I reiterated the importance of guaranteeing the civic space, and asked for the establishment of a broad consultative process on the law.”

With their hands tied

NGOs complain that, in the first place, the new law declares the non-existence of all forms of non-profit associations already registered (associations, foundations and all forms of alliances), that do not adjust to the new provisions, which violate the principle of non-retroactivity.

Besides the entities defined as NGOs, the law would also cover charitable and educational foundations, chambers or other business associations and even social clubs. That is, any type of civil association.

Then, a large number of requirements are established, with mandatory registrations and constant renewals, “with no time limits or clear evaluation criteria, or due process guarantees in case of denials.”

Daniels noted the obligatory nature of a sworn statement of assets that the new law anticipates for the members, representatives and workers of each NGO, together with detailed data on the acquisition and use of resources.

But, in addition, fines are imposed on minutes of meetings and rules, and it is established that in order to operate, organizations must not only register, but also obtain express authorization from the government, which may then decide which ones operate and which ones do not.

The law would reach programs developed under the figure of foundations, such as the Catholic Fe y Alegría, which for many years has maintained a network of schools in rural areas and poor neighborhoods, as well as a network of educational radio stations. Photo: Fe y Alegría

In the event that the authority suspects any irregularity, it must open an investigation, and with that opening alone it may, through a precautionary measure, suspend the operations of the organization to be investigated.

NGOs are prohibited from engaging in political activities, in a generic way, which opens the way to charge them in cases of defense of rights or criticism of the state.

Regarding sanctions for non-compliance with requirements, fines of up to US $12,000 stand out, “which in the Venezuelan crisis situation no NGO can comply with without being dissolved,” warned Daniels, and criminal liabilities are added in some cases.

Carlos Ayala Corao, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the current law “violates the national and international legal system and seeks to control society.”

Why this law now?

According to Uzcategui, the law responds to a years old policy to confront NGOs with the state “in the first place because we have been effective in calling attention to international mechanisms for the protection of human rights.”

Against Venezuelan authorities, “an investigation by the International Criminal Court has been activated, unprecedented in the continent, on possible crimes against humanity, an important blow to the international image of Maduro,” said Uzcategui.

This Court is conducting a preliminary investigation on accusations against the ruler and other politicians and military leaders, after accusations by relatives for their alleged responsibility in the death of demonstrators in protests, of opponents and military dissidents in interrogations, torture, and other crimes.

The complaints from human rights groups, which feed investigations by entities such as the International Criminal Court, could have influenced the decision to have a new law to prevent “political” aspects in the actions of NGOs. Photo Civilis

Venezuela experienced massive protests, some of them cruelly repressed in 2014, 2017 and 2019, and in the course of 2023 there have been dozens of demonstrations by state workers and pensioners, because in the country the minimum wage and millions of pensions are equivalent to less than six dollars a month.

Provea’s leader added that so far this year dozens of protests by workers due to low salaries and pensions have taken place, “and the authorities are trying to stop this scenario of conflict with the actors of the democratic society.”

Finally, he said the law may be another bargaining chip taken to the recurrent dialogues between the government and the opposition, “as are the political prisoners,” in view of the presidential elections scheduled for 2024.

The consequences

If the law prospers “it will hinder the work of critical voices, of accompaniment to the victims of rights violations, but the most terrible consequences will not be experienced by the organizations but by the people who are beneficiaries of our work,” Uzcategui stressed.

Daniels denoted that the new law does not cover companies such as banks, for example, but it does cover their groups, which are civil associations, or entities that support schools or feeding centers, many of them in the poorest sectors, and which are registered and act as foundations.

“This is the case of community feeding centers run by Caritas (a Catholic organization), or the free medicine banks run by the NGOs Convite and Accion Solidaria, or the network of community schools of Fe y Alegria (created by the Jesuit Catholic order),” Uzcategui added.

More than 90 organizations called on Colombian President Gustavo Petro (L), seen at a border meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro on February 16, to lobby for the NGO bill to be scrapped. Photo: Presidency of Venezuela

There are also foreseeable consequences in the international scenario, given that most of the NGOs resort to international donors to finance their activities, and because several international entities do not act directly in the country but through NGOs that have become their local partners.

But it will also influence the regional political game by following the path set by Nicaragua, which has banned thousands of organizations, and “we are alerting neighboring countries that the crisis in Venezuela will increase and with it emigration, including that of non-profit activists seeking refuge,” said Uzcategui.

During Maduro’s 10 years in the presidency, marked by an acute economic crisis in the country, with a drop of up to 80% of its gross domestic product and an extended hyperinflation, more than seven million Venezuelans—almost a quarter of its population—have left the country, mainly to neighboring countries.

More than 90 organizations have already presented a letter to Colombian president Gustavo Petro, asking him to intervene with efforts so that the approval of the law is dismissed, and to help so that the limits that should not be crossed by states to the detriment of free association as a human right be respected.

Uzcategui thinks that the approval of the law will encourage the imposition of sanctions from the United States and Europe on the State and its parliamentarians.

Thus, “the poverty and divisiveness of the population will increase, when what the Venezuelans need are spaces for dialogue and understanding,” concluded the director of Provea.

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